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You know that theory that has been going around Hollywood for the last few decades: female superhero stories can’t succeed? That those stories just can’t work creatively, and certainly can’t work from a financial perspective (a question we can’t answer through a streaming platform like Netflix). Well, the people behind that clearly have never met Jessica Jones. Because Jessica Jones proves that Hollywood’s theory on female led superhero stories and creativity is bullshit. Complete bullshit.
Is Jessica Jones a perfect series? Nope, and I’ll touch on some of it’s issues a bit later on. But Jessica Jones is proof that engaging, complicated, and fun stories can be told about the myriad of really cool and complex female superheroes that exist in both the Marvel and DC universes. They don’t need to be relegated to the background, they don’t need to be saved by the guys around them, and they certainly don’t need to be shoe-horned into the role of girlfriend to a male superhero with little or no build-up to the relationship (I’m looking at you, Avengers: Age of Ultron). Jessica Jones offers up an excellent blueprint for how to make a good superhero television series, full stop. For those who haven’t had a chance to check it out, the bulk of this review will be full of spoilers. But let me offer you this comparison, to help you decide if this show is for you. Jessica Jones is the Battlestar Galactica of Marvel, while The Avengers is the Star Trek: Next Generation. It’s gritty, dark, and bad things happen to good people. Bear that in mind when you give it a look. So, if you haven’t had a chance to check out the entire 13-episode first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, I suggest you do that right now. Because from here on out, spoilers will abound.
What amazed me the most about Jessica Jones was how willing the show was to tackle things that have been absent from the previous slate of Marvel produced properties. Not only does the show have a female lead (the sensational Krysten Ritter, who finally has the breakout role she so richly deserves), I would argue that the show’s secondary leads are also ladies. Trish Walker (a perfectly cast Rachel Taylor) is almost just as crucial to the series as Jessica (and proves that she can hold her own on a number of occasions, which was really refreshing). And then there’s Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss, who adds surprising depth to a character who easily could have veered off into cartoon bad guy territory), who may be less prevalent throughout the story than Trish, but who is just as important to Jessica’s arc. She also happens to by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first major out and proud queer character, which was nice to see. Of course, that isn’t to say the series doesn’t have several complex and engaging male characters, but it’s an interesting turn to see a Marvel property so dominated by strong female characters (a phrase I hate using, but one that is rather apropos in this case).
Across the board, the character development in Jessica Jones is one of the key elements to the show’s success. While none of the characters might be described as “likable,” (another term I really dislike) each is a fully realized person. We care when bad things happen to these guys- whether it elicits sympathy or glee. When Hope killed herself, I audibly gasped. When Kilgrave had Trish in his clutches, I was genuinely concerned for her safety. And when Jessica dismissed Malcolm, even though he was legitimately trying to help her work through her crippling mental and emotional issues with Kilgrave, I really felt bad for him. Over the span of 13 episodes, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and her team created a clear world with specific characters. They simply weren’t stand-ins for traditional superhero fare: a side kick, a love interest, a shady possible villain. They were living, breathing, fully realized characters with a whole host of emotions.
Also refreshing to see? Another strong villain. Marvel’s CMU has been taken to task lately over its inability to create complex and interesting villains to do battle with its heroes. At this point, the only “worthy” villains have been Loki (due in large part to Tom Hiddleston work in the role) and Kingpin on Daredevil (where the show took a similar path to what was done on Jessica Jones, giving Kingpin depth through screen time and background- something that is, understandably, hard to do with a film). While Kilgrave (with a truly great performance from David Tennant) was a bit out there a certain points during the season, he was a truly effective and terrifying villain.
Very few things are more frightening than a loss of personal control, and the idea that a person could effectively control those around him is chilling. Had the series simply stopped there, Kilgrave would have been a good villain. But the show went further. It put a name on what Kilgrave had done to both Jessica and Hope (and to many others as well). Kilgrave raped them. He raped them physically and mentally. The series didn’t gloss over this, and it didn’t try to downplay the psychological aftereffects of what he did. Attaching a word as loaded as rape to Kilgrave’s actions highlighted that what he has done can’t simply be wiped away with a sob story background or claims that he didn’t know how to be good. There wasn’t grey area here. Kilgrave was not a good person, and no amount of help was ever going to make him one. And that is ok. It’s ok to have a villain who cannot be redeemed. It’s ok for the hero to have to kill the bad guy to make it all stop. And we can certainly see why Kilgrave needed to be stopped.
Choosing to create a season-long arc around the chase, capture, and death of a single villain was an interesting choice in and of itself. Yes, Daredevil ultimately dealt with Murdock facing off against Fisk and those under his purview, but Jessica Jones was completely focused on dealing with Kilgrave alone, and not throwing in any “villains of the week” or additional villains into the mix along the way. And this is where I have some problems with the season. It is hard to maintain a high level of storytelling when the story requires the hero to get just close enough to the villain but never catch him over the course of a season. Right around the midway point, the Kilgrave arc started to drag a bit. It took Jessica just a tad too long to see what we could all see from pretty early on in the season: Kilgrave was going to have to die. Perhaps if the series had eased a bit more into the Kilgrave arc. Maybe if Jessica had taken a case prior to Hope’s that hinted at Kilgrave’s return, but didn’t clearly show her it was imminent. That would have allowed some additional time to learn about Jessica, understand why her fear of Kilgrave was so acute, and build the world around her before jumping into a season-long chase for one villain (albeit, an excellent villain).
My other quibble with the season (and it truly is a quibble) was Luke Cage. Now, I have zero complaints with Mike Colter’s portrayal of the character, or with the writing of the character. He fit in well with the series, and I really enjoyed the interplay between Luke and Jessica. But it worries me that, from what we’ve seen, there aren’t exactly many ways to injure him. Sure, if you can impact his internal organs, he’s toast (and then there’s the conundrum of how to save him, which could become a tedious exercise). But I worry that, going forward, his fight sequences will be devoid of any real stakes. Now, I haven’t read any of Luke Cage’s comics (or Jessica Jones’ either), so this may not even be something I should worry about (feel free to let me know in the comments if it is much ado about nothing). But watching Luke easily dispatch some goons was fun the first few times, but then it grew stale.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed getting to know Jessica Jones and exploring her corner of the Marvel Universe. And, as one of my colleagues wrote about last week, I really hope the positive reviews of Jessica Jones lead to Marvel taking more time with the female heroes in the MCU. Maybe add some more darkness to their stories. Give them the agency to act on their own. Don’t force them to be the girlfriend rather than an equal. And, with the Captain Marvel film still off in the horizon, maybe give a female writer or director a crack at bringing her story to the screen. After all, it worked pretty great this time around.